Green Belt battles and Surrey
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Long regarded as a sacrosanct barrier protecting our rolling countryside from urban sprawl, the Green Belt is under threat like never before. Here, Jonathan Essex, the Green Party’s first elected councillor on Surrey County Council, argues why we must act now to save it...
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Jonathan Essex apologises for rambling. He is not talking about a stroll through Surrey’s Green Belt, however, but rather for meandering verbally through the socio-economic and political minefield that threatens its very existence.
As the Green Party’s first elected councillor on Surrey County Council, representing Redhill East, protection of the Green Belt is understandably one of his top priorities. Some areas of Surrey are 90 per cent Green Belt. The average is 70 per cent, which is also the figure under the care of Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, for which he is also one of three Green Party councillors.
As it happens, our meeting to talk about the Green Belt comes wedged between two seismic statements.
The day before, a Government inspector had reported back on Reigate and Banstead Borough Council’s core strategy, saying that development on the area’s Green Belt should not be needed for at least 15 years. A potential 2,000-homes scheme near Salfords, by a builder ready to submit formal plans, was therefore kicked into the long grass.
Then, the day after our conversation, one national newspaper headline cried: ‘Build on boring fields, says minister,’ after Nick Boles, a Parliamentary junior for planning, said the public should be willing to lose “environmentally uninteresting” landscapes as a British population increased by two million in the last decade looks for homes.
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Essex himself is not of the view that it is acceptable to lose Green Belt land – under any circumstances.
“The fundamental purpose of the Green Belt was to stop urban sprawl,” he says. “If we hadn’t set it up a hundred years ago, we wouldn’t have our natural surroundings, but London sprawl. If we don’t protect it now, that’s what we will get.”
To bring us right up to date, central Government no longer imposes housing quotas. Borough councils are asked to outline their own housing needs via core strategies. Essex says they therefore “play safe”, proposing higher numbers for their core strategies than they might like, so that Government inspectors ratifying them do not reject low numbers.
“Our own borough council has gambled on 460 new homes a year for the next 15 years,” he adds. “The Green Party were arguing that this number was at least a hundred too high. Why does the Government require us to do this if it thinks the Green Belt is so important?”
Another big issue on the table is the possibility of a new runway at Gatwick Airport; if that happened, there could be further encroachment on Surrey’s open land, either for the expansion itself or for the homes needed to double the airport’s 20,000 work force, Essex speculates. Alternatively, Sussex might take the housing load.
Conflict, therefore, is emerging between economic and business growth and protecting the environment.
“We’re fairly near full employment capacity in Surrey and good compared to the rest of the UK,” says Essex, asking rhetorically whether it would be acceptable to migrate workers from other parts of the country to Surrey – for example to support Gatwick – and therefore to build more houses for them. “Should we risk change and development in a way that threatens the sustainable communities and environment that is the Surrey we live in and love?”
There is also the fact that housing issues are complex. One example is that of farm buildings – permitted development in the Green Belt but, if converted to homes, only affordable to the affluent. And even where developers have tried to build ‘affordable homes’, there are unforeseen consequences.
In recent years, two neighbouring developments alone added 1,000 homes to Merstham and Redhill, part of Essex’s borough, leading to the situation where the infrastructure to support such an expanding population has been left behind.
“We’re short of a school locally,” he says, explaining: “Those people who couldn’t afford the family homes bought flats and started families anyway. Do we expect families to be brought up in one-bedroom flats? If you build expensive houses, that’s not providing for housing need, but for London’s expansion of the population of Surrey.”
And that, says Essex, is not acceptable. He is not alone. Reigate’s MP Crispin Blunt said earlier this year “we don’t have the right to give away the Metropolitan Green Belt to developers”. There are also Twitter, Facebook and website campaigns across many areas of the county trying to protect open spaces – including Reigate, Bookham and Effingham and Chobham Common, among others.
When canvassing on doorsteps for votes, Essex found that the environment was a key concern.
“Most people want a councillor who will deal with local issues, not just accept an increase in potholes for example, but challenge things and provide political opposition,” he says.
“Many people have a real concern about green issues and there has been a lack of focus on them. In the [Reigate and Banstead] borough, it’s only in the last year or so that recycling services have been expanded – and the county council is still talking about building at least one incinerator.
“First, I am a representative of the people who elected me, not a ‘party’, but as a Green Party person I’m saying you need to do some things differently.
“We have to consider our grandchildren. If we sit in county hall and all we’re concerned about is balancing the budget, that’s all we will do.
“Unless we consider future generations, all we’re doing is looking at what we’re cutting, not what we’re creating.”
Among his “doing some things differently” is the suggestion of putting wind turbines down the central reservations of the M25, or in every school playing field.
Already appointed to the county’s planning committee, he has the chance to challenge the status quo and to influence thinking, in meetings and before and after them, just by talking to other councillors – or by holding public meetings.
“When Reigate and Banstead’s local plan came out last December, there was no public consultation planned,” he says. “We [The Green Party] held a meeting. We booked a room that would seat 20 people. We counted 94. People are understandably concerned about what is proposed.”
The chain of events sparked a debate in Parliament via Blunt, prompting Boles to emphasise that it was down to local people to consider what they wanted for their area.
This, in turn, prompted Surrey County Council, back in March, to vote unanimously to do everything it could to protect the Green Belt. Essex has the perfect background to assist and advise, as the county strives to live up to that declaration, via what is left of his working life after serving on two councils.
An engineer, he works part-time for BioRegional, an entrepreneurial charity establishing sustainable business, which has created Croydon tree station. This turns the timber from trees in the south London borough into biomass heating. It is what he would do with land, for example, that farms have decided is no longer arable and where people therefore might shrug their shoulders and say, ‘why not use it for housing?’
“Why not plant trees?” he counters. “The Green Belt always has other value – as farmland and woodland. It has beautiful vistas; the production of wood supplies London for fuel; it produces timber for telegraph poles.
“Surrey is the most wooded county in England. So do we keep that or do we accept development and change the nature of Surrey? The question is, if we do that, will it retain its distinctiveness and character or just become an extension of London?”
Case Study 1:
One of the highest profile battles over Green Belt land is still continuing as campaigners and developers fight on through the courts over the former home of Lord Beaverbrook at Cherkley Court. Most recently, Surrey countryside campaigners won their legal action against Mole Valley District Council over the decision to permit the building of a luxury golf and leisure complex at the historic site near Leatherhead. However, while Mole Valley’s decision to grant permission for the development at Leatherhead Downs has for now been quashed, the developers are set to appeal.
Case study 2: Bookham/Effingham
Residents will be presented with an “X-Factor style” choice on 17 possible developments in Bookham and Effingham’s Green Belt, say campaigners determined that none of them are appropriate. Jane Buckingham is one of a group of residents who have set up a website, (handsoffthegreenbelt.com) using the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England’s slogan, ‘Hands off the Green Belt’. “The page saying a petition will be put together has got more hits than even the main page,” says Jane, whose recently-formed group faces having to protest to two councils, Mole Valley and Guildford, as the sites overlap boundaries.
The proposals range from two or three-home builds all the way up to a 625-property development between The Lorne/Hawkwood Rise and Rectory Lane.
Case Study 3: Chobham Common
A rare protected species, the nightjar is on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ “red list” as a creature that is in urgent need of conservation. Equally threatened is the silver-studded blue butterfly. They live, with 300 species of flowers and hundreds of wildlife species including reptiles, on a nature reserve that features one of the few remaining areas of lowland heath in the world – Chobham Common. Next to this site lies a former Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) area, which was run by the Ministry of Defence, and Runnymede Borough Council is now seeking to declassify the land from Green Belt to allow the building of 1,500 homes and a business park.
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2007
How Surrey led the way in the green belt revolution
Here in Surrey, ours was the first council to protect a stretch of land solely for its value as natural countryside. As a result, we are now blessed with some of the most beautiful and vast green spaces in the country. The chairman of Surrey Wildlife Trust, Alan Oakley, tells the story
Despite its proximity to London, Surrey is blessed with vast swathes of beautiful countryside. In fact, as a county, we have more publicly accessible green spaces than virtually any other place in the country. But how did this all come about? Well, strangely enough, it all goes back to a decision made by Surrey County Council in the early part of the 20th century. With tremendous foresight - bearing in mind that this was long before anyone had ever heard the term green belt - they set out to protect wide stretches of the county's most beautiful rural land. These protected areas became known as the county's 'Countryside Estate', and this unique resource is still owned by the county council today. Now managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust, it extends to some 10,000 acres across the entire county and is virtually unparalleled elsewhere in England. There are some 32 major sites, including national treasures such as Chobham Common, which are wonderful places, havens for wildlife and enjoyed by thousands of families across the county. Five years ago, when the management of the estate was entrusted to Surrey Wildlife Trust under a ground-breaking agreement, it was a significant step forward for the Wildlife Trust and helpful for the council. Of course, there are other local authorities who own large areas of country parks or smallholdings. But it has been unusual for a local authority to retain and manage land as natural green space, maintained for its landscape, the habitats it provides and for its public access. But just how did our council manage to secure the long term protection of this big area of land? Surrey's Development In order to find out, we need to go right back to the 1920s and 30s. Being close to London, and well served by trains and roads, Surrey came under huge pressure between the Wars for new housing. Since planning legislation was then very limited, ribbon development along roads was fast spreading outwards into the countryside. People were already worried about the loss of countryside, and the threatened sale of Norbury Park for speculative development in 1930 brought matters to a head. Planning powers would be unable to prevent it, so Surrey County Councillor Alderman Willcocks bought it and offered it to the council at the price he paid. To ensure the council had the powers, clauses were added to a Bill going through Parliament, the Surrey County Council Act of 1931. This Act then became the basis of the London County Council's Green Belt Act of 1938, which allowed the councils to buy (or assist in buying) land within the Green Belt around London. Over 3,000 acres in Surrey now owned by the county council, district councils and the National Trust were bought in this way. The next stage was the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which enabled local authorities to enter agreements with landowners to provide and manage access to the public. Again, Surrey was at the forefront with agreements introduced over several thousand acres of private land, including well known beauty spots such as Newlands Corner, St. Martha's Hill, Puttenham Common and the White Downs. Awareness of wildlife increased in the 1980s By the early 1980s, a greater awareness of wildlife and the environment encouraged the county council to take a more positive role in the management of the estate. Better habitat management, visitor information and the Countryside Ranger Service followed. Designating Chobham Common as a national nature reserve in 1994 gave even more recognition to the estate. Chobham Common covers over 1,400 acres. It is the largest national nature reserve in South East England and one of the finest remaining examples of lowland heath in the world. Since its designation, considerable effort has gone into restoring the heathland, downland and woodland there. Overall, the partnership and leasing arrangements that saw the Wildife Trust take over the management of the Countryside Estate now means that a unique asset established with great imagination three-quarters of a century ago will continue to survive. And it has enabled Surrey Wildlife Trust to deliver an ever more comprehensive habitat management service for the benefit of the people and the wildlife of Surrey.
THE VERDICT from those in the know
NIGEL DAVENPORT, Surrey Wildlife Trust chief executive, says the land has proved to be an invaluable asset to the county
“Both the county council and the Wildlife Trust acted with considerable bravery and foresight in setting up the arrangements whereby the Trust has taken over the management of the Countryside Estate. It is this kind of open space, a living and working countryside, which tells people so much more about the countryside than they will see from many country parks.”
Surrey County Council environment manager ROSE YOUNGER often walks her dog in the area. She thinks we are very lucky here in Surrey to have such vast amounts of open space
“My local site is Sheepleas and I walk it regularly with my dog Blue. When I moved from Hertfordshire to Surrey in 1996, I was really impressed with the amount of public open space freely available. Then I had the chance to work on Sheepleas coppicing and charcoal burning there. I now manage the contract with Surrey Wildlife Trust and I am fortunate in being able to experience the other sites in the Countryside Estate as part of my work.”
MARK HAVLER, ranger at Broadstreet & Backside Commons, is passionate about Surrey’s Countryside Estate and feels it’s a vital asset to the county
“In the past, the commons used to be an integral part of peoples’ lives whether for livestock or produce. In today’s hectic and urban society, it is my ambition that they again become part of modern life. This is a wonderful place that needs people who are respectful of its past as much as mindful of its future. I, for one, am working for that. If anyone feels they can help, please get in touch with me on 07968 832505 or call the Trust on 01483 795440.
Surrey’s Countryside Estate: THE KEY SITES